Technology from the grassroots: What formal engineering can take away


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Our broader work examines whether a good model for sustainability engineering could be developed by studying the practice of grassroots technology design, by both untrained as well as trained designers.

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Editor’s Note:

This talk was delivered by Geetanjali Date as part of a Dialogue event called विज्ञान: तळागाळांपासून प्रयोगशाळांपर्यंत (Science: From the grassroots to the laboratory). The event took place on 25-Feb-2018 at Garware College Pune and was organized by IAS, Bengaluru and IISER-Pune. The talk is in Marathi. A brief abstract of the talk is given below.


Humans have built up an artificial new world with the help of science and technology. But we have also damaged the planet’s ecosystem significantly in the process. So much so, that this era is now being called the Anthropocene. Global climate change and poverty are some of the results of this rampant building. Design of future technologies thus needs to embed sustainability as a key value. Despite the consensus across the industry and educators that engineering design practice and education needs to change all across, bringing a sustainability focus to engineering practice and education is a challenge, as good general models of sustainability engineering do not exist.


The shift towards sustainability engineering requires illustrating successful design practices that embed social and ecological sustainability values, particularly designs that move away from the current focus on input-output efficiency, towards eco-social and socio-technical approaches to design. Non-formally trained Grassroots Innovators (GRIs) identified by Honey Bee Network and recognized through the National Innovation Foundation exemplify some such practices. Such designs have succeeded in socially uplifting and empowering rural people, as well as providing ecologically sustainable development. Our broader work examines whether a good model for sustainability engineering could be developed by studying the practice of grassroots technology design, by both untrained as well as trained designers.


In trying to extract what formal engineering can take away from the non-formally trained GRIs, some select cases help bring out the nature of grassroots problems and the technology solutions that fit them. The designs illustrate a widening of the design space, to include parameters beyond input-output efficiency and optimization for profit, and leading to innovative socio-technical solutions. The case of micro hydro power system design is discussed in more detail, to demonstrate that the society-technology connection is highly plastic as the design process starts with need or problem formulation. This plasticity allows for a range of ways in which the ecological, social and technical could come together to form innovative and sustainable solutions. The now famous case of low-cost sanitary napkin-making machine helps highlight how design for product as well as production, especially when decentralized, enables empowerment through local livelihoods that are equitable and sustainable. These cases illustrate a novel design principle – ‘Solving for Pattern’ – where the designs seek to address many aspects of the problems in an interconnected way, and maintain the larger patterns of equity and sustainability within which the technologies operate (Date & Chandrasekharan, 2017).


The situated design practice of informally trained grassroots innovators thus provides a contrast that highlights the limited approach of mainstream industrial practice towards engineering. These cases indicate that designing for sustainability particularly requires a broadening of the roles and identities of engineering designers, to include themes wider than engineering sciences and mathematics. Including these and similar case studies in engineering curricula could support the shift towards such a broader engineering design identity, where sustainability is a key component of design practice.



Date, G., & Chandrasekharan, S. (2017). Beyond Efficiency: Engineering for Sustainability Requires Solving for Pattern. Engineering Studies, 1-26. DOI:10.1080/19378629.2017.1410160


Geetanjai Date is a associated with the Learning Sciences Research Group, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, India. She can be reached at

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